A Sad State Of Affairs…
Oh my god we’re fucked! Yeah, yeah, I know, we can still stay up but after the Crewe disaster do you really feel in your heart of hearts that we will? Hmm, me neither. Back on the 12th of January 2008 the Gills romped (yup, “romped”) to a splendid 3-1 win at Huddersfield moving up to 15th in the table – the highest of the season and seemingly banishing the nagging concerns regarding who would actually score any goals without the pace, promise and lethal strike rate of Chris Dickson. Dickson got injured during the Bournemouth game and returned to the Valley before Christmas leaving us scratching around for any goals we could cobble together, twice against Forest and Huddersfield we bucked the trend but the signs were there and after the win in West Yorkshire the Gills played thirteen League games, winning one, drawing three (all shite 0-0’s) and losing nine, scoring six goals (four by Crofts, all away, all in defeats) and conceding twenty-four. They then managed just one poxy goal (from a penalty) at home in six games (540 minutes).
Throw into the mix some really bad refereeing errors, most notably at Brighton, some bad luck, a missed penalty and a plethora of red cards and you get the “perfect storm” which has engulfed the club. From fringe candidates for relegation in January, to very real possibilities (after the Northampton debacle) to almost dead certs in two months has taken some doing. Scally naturally is now getting it in the neck from a sizeable proportion of the rapidly dwindling home support, more of him and the big picture later, but part of the responsibility must also rest with the players and management.
Now I have to hold my hands up, I was chuffed when Jepson got sacked (the motley crew of ageing wasters he’d collected would have taken us down no question) and due to the Swindon horror show under the inexperienced Iffy I was pleased when we appointed Stimson. He had a promising record at both Grays and Stevenage and certainly talked a good game. Radical surgery was required on a shambolic team and initial impressions were good, from the gutsy draw at Swansea to the thrilling win at Crewe things looked to be turning round (we’d scored once and lost every away game prior to his arrival) although at home progress except in the JPT was less consistent.
He might have been ruthless and he might have ruffled a few feathers but frankly that was what was needed to shake up a complacent team seemingly going through the motions. From addressing the clear issues regarding fitness (or lack of) to trying to get a reserve team going, to giving some youngsters an overdue chance to shine he appeared to know what he was doing. Initial reactions to most of the players he brought in, even those from his previous non-league clubs were of the “well they won’t all make the grade but they can’t be worse than the shite we’ve already got” – the only apparent fly in the ointment being the problem between him and David Graham, a decent enough player but unsubstantiated rumours regarding attitude and drink did the rounds – perhaps the fact that even as a free agent he hasn’t found another club speaks volumes. However the confrontational style and ruthlessness plus the candour with the press made it a high risk strategy. By all means cut out the deadwood but if you don’t replace it with anything better then you lay yourself open to criticism. Craig Armstrong and Nicky Southall were not happy bunnies either, the former being sent back from whence he came with a flee in his ear.
All these comings and goings saw a bewildering turnover of players, the one we really needed to keep, Dickson wasn’t ours to begin with and that was where the Stimson revolution really began to unravel. Aside from the lively if lightweight Miller most of the signings have not been inspirational. Solid, fit, determined but the lack of guile, pace and imagination began to become painfully apparent, nowhere more alarmingly than up front.
Now I know Gary Mulligan has his supporters, he works hard, but then so would a Gills fan if you stuck him out there, it is all well and good if you have one striker that doesn’t score much but sets up his partner in crime to do the tricky part but if both are lacking in goals you have trouble. Aside from a few months when Jarvis was still a fit Gills player and laying on a string of chances at the near post for him to tap home he has been almost allergic to scoring during his entire Gillingham career. His other fellow so called “strikers” have been equally goal-shy, Facey coming in for particular criticism for his seemingly casual approach and lumbering style.
Oli and Griffiths are just pacey but limited bit-part players from non-League to bolster the squad on the cheap – which leaves Simeon Jackson. A £150,000 signing from Rushden and Diamonds. He looks sharp, he looks like he knows where the fucking goal is, but he is also young, slight and in need of a partner to play off. Sadly Stimson has either played him out of position, on his own or brought him on as a substitute which seems quite perverse given his record earlier this season. I want Stimson to succeed and I understand what he is trying to do, but I can’t defend him against the growing criticism for this mystifying waste of talent. The fifteen minute cameo when the Crewe game was already done and dusted added insult to injury for those that stayed behind to watch the grizzly denouement. The subsequent goal and general all round display against Bournemouth proved the point.
With other players the jury remains out, inconsistency mean one week they don’t look too bad, the next out of their depth, it is perhaps unrealistic to expect Fuller, Richards, Bygrave, Nutter, Cullip, Thurgood, Lewis, Maher, Miller, Griffiths and Oli to all instantly gel or all make the grade, but the instability of the squad and selection tends to suggest that Stimson is not happy with the quality of the players at his disposal, both the ones he inherited and those he was able to bring in. It feels like a never ending case of rearranging the chairs on the Titanic each week as he shuffles a mediocre collection of players. They aren’t as bad as the mob that took us down in 88-89 but at least that side did have two jewels buried amid the dung heap – notably Gavin Peacock and Steve Lovell. None of the current batch are showing even an ounce of the talent of those two which says it all really.
We might be conceding a fair few goals at the moment, confidence is understandably a tad fragile, but the fundamental problem is the lack of goals. Without them you can’t possibly hope to win games which when push comes to shove is the aim of the game! It means even we do play reasonably well and keep it tight at the back (four crucial home games, even a couple of away games) we can’t take advantage and if something goes awry at the other end we’re invariably doomed and on occasions collapse horribly.
Obviously the current team lack sufficient ability to win games in League One. A decent striker or two can cover a multitude of sins in midfield and at the back but it doesn’t usually work in reverse. The $64,000 question then comes, why have we got such limited players? and the answer as ever in professional football is simple – money. You usually get what you pay for, Stimson has brought in plenty of players but from the bargain basement and on loan, it isn’t like 1996-97-98 when the Gills were buying some of the best players from their peers in Division Two, no Paul Smiths, Guy Butters, Andy Hessenthalers or even Iffy Onuoras. In ’97 we were struggling for goals and points until the team was transformed by Akinbiyi, on paper the team was a work in progress, but it helped the rest of the team move to the next level.
Why can’t we repeat the trick? Well we all know why and then you have to face up to the Big Picture. You can get irritated by Stimson’s meddling, infuriated by Facey’s incompetence or Mulligan’s lemming-like tendency to turn away from goal and head for the corner flag without asking why we’re stuck with such dross, but you’d be fooling yourself. Sadly, cataclysmically the Gills are £12 million in debt and poised to become tenants in the stadium they have owned since 1893. The scheme that will see Priestfield transferred to a shell company solely owned and controlled by Paul Scally for a reported £9 million looks like a cute move to give the Gills more financial wiggle room and reduce the debt (and hence interest payments) to £3 million although with few real remaining assets should the financial picture get even more gloomy fans will be left feeling exposed and vulnerable – dependent upon the future goodwill and cooperation of new landlord Paul Scally.
The reason why the club has been reduced to such desperate financial manoeuvres has been well documented over the years and the finger of blame has to pointed fairly and squarely at Chairman, majority shareholder, Chief Executive and Lord of all he surveys, Paul Scally. He has made every major financial decision at the club since he took over in the summer of 1995 for £1. He guaranteed the remaining debt of perhaps £1 million which was subsequently cleared by the extra revenue generated by the somewhat unexpected success on the pitch from day one under the inspirational Tony Pulis…
With success we could forgive him his foibles, his public relations disasters, his rants and cringeworthy stunts because we were pragmatic, we were all happy to surf the wave of joy that took us from Division Three to the Championship via Wembley twice with some cup runs thrown in for good measure. Some of us were most upset with the departure of Pulis but we were very much in the minority as the Gills established themselves in the Championship, albeit with the ageing team Pulis built.
Unfortunately things then slowly but surely began to unravel, the rebuilding of Priestfield saw a massive overspend on the Medway Stand, ITV Digital did go tits up (although only after we received full payment for year one) – plus it was foolhardy to assume either a) we’d definitely be in the Championship for the other two years or b) amid all the rumours of tiny audiences and financial meltdown that ITV Digital would cough up. Throw in relatively high wages gambled on some ageing players that didn’t pay off and the downward spiral had begun. ITV Digital cost us no more than £3.5 million which doesn’t really explain how we managed to lose a further £8 million during a period of high crowds, our highest ever prices, a television and sponsorship boom, cup runs, two trips to Wembley, ground improvement grants, a share issue and the sale of several players for very significant fees (Akinbiyi, Taylor, King, Henderson etc) to be replaced by less gifted players on the cheap.
Scally certainly increased the chances of it all beginning to go wrong only two years into the Championship stay with the pig-headed Arsenal ticket debacle and jacking up of ticket prices meaning crowds soon slipped from 9,300+ to barely 8,000 and season ticket sales from well over 6,000 to not much above 4,500. Already the process of alienating various sections of the limited fanbase had begun. From demonising (and in some cases then excluding) Alan Liptrott, elements of the local press and the Independent Supporters Club to generally stroppy behaviour towards other clubs, ex-players and anyone that challenged his world view Scally ate away at the huge amount of goodwill he’d rightly and deservedly built up over the first five years of his reign. He had been happy enough to bask in the reflected glory when things were going well (more cringeworthy posturing) but refused to take any responsibility of blame for when things began to go wrong.
Now in 2008 the shit has finally hit the fan. The chickens have roosted and the natives, finally, at long last are showing their dissent. Now Scally owns roughly 70% of the shares which means unless he does something illegal he can just about do just about what he likes (hardly “best practice” but hey ho!). Despite all the juicy gossip no hard evidence of either financial shenanigans or deliberate malicious actions have come to light. The only thing people can rightly claim is simple stupid, arrogant, complacent incompetence. At most other clubs with a more feisty, political or organised supporter base he’d have been chased out of town long ago, the litany of errors stacks up and up and yet he robustly refuses to take any responsibility for the current situation, ducks the flak, cynically blames all and sundry except himself and appears to genuinely believe (perhaps brazenly) that there is no actual problem to address!
This all came out against Crewe with a significant minority chanting “Scally Out” for only the second time ever at Priestfield with any volume or intensity. Those that remained in the ground after the third goal also had a go at Stimson and the players with a resounding chorus of “What a load of rubbish” but it was the calls for Scally to go that caught the ear. For many it was the culmination of years of pent up frustration, perhaps over petty things initially but now the very future of the club is looking potentially very dodgy indeed.
The fall out has been predictably messy, post-match Scally’s car allegedly had two rocks chucked at it – we’ll have to take his word for it, (the jury remains out) although with little evidence to go on, no actual harm done (i.e. all occupants of the car still in one piece) and the fact that it could have been a couple of local chavs being chavs oblivious to who was driving the car for all we know, not even Gills fans, Scally’s melodramatic reaction – calling anyone, yes ANYONE that even had the temerity to boo or call for him to go “Scumbags” (why oh why oh why do you do it Paul?) – insulting your few remaining customers after one of the worst home games in the last thirteen years isn’t going to calm tempers… He then followed it up with some rather predictably graceless (and contradictory) public pronouncements in the local press and the shortest ever Chairman’s column in programme history!
The childish programme “gesture” brought only genuine howls of laughter before the Bournemouth game in the Blues Rock Café as those who’d got the programme asked later arrivals to guess the contents of Scally‘s usually interesting column. More seriously though further comments that the club would “fold tomorrow” if he left set alarm bells ringing, because of the potential vindictive revenge he could inflict upon the club as absentee landlord should he spit his dummy out and bugger off to Dubai once the sale of Priestfield finally gets rubber stamped. The actual “fold without me” is a red herring to strike fear into the “scumbags” but it is utter tosh, he is NOT the club, any future owners would have to come up with a plan, perhaps initially use his existing one, so why would the bank pull the plug on the club where they would lose lots of money whilst if we continue trading the regular interest payments are just what they like from their clients…
Predictably post-Crewe sections of the Gillingham support began to mobilize, they’d finally had enough and thanks to the internet there was soon an email address to reply to for anyone wishing to help start a peaceful campaign of protest and a Facebook group called “Scally Out!” – although in predictably Gills style the already fragmented support was soon arguing amongst itself over the best way forward as well as engaging in some decidedly tasty debates online with the few remaining Scally-apologists. Hopefully the “Bashers” will get it together with the “Scumbags” rather than engaging in some Life of Brian-esque internal wrangling rather than appreciating the big picture. Victory over Bournemouth changed little, the situation isn’t going to go away with a couple of wins or even if we stay up, the relationship between Scally and a significant majority of the Gills support (including the 4,000 that appeared to have already voted with their feet) is now so badly damaged it is perhaps irretrievable and the campaign in cyberspace gathers pace.
Unfortunately this hasn’t prevented a haemorrhaging of support amongst the die-hards, those that have been season-ticket holders for more than twenty years, the people that watched us home and away in 92-93, some of my best friends are now giving up on the club that brought us together, it is pretty sad and I must stress other factors play a part including cost, family commitments and getting older, so does the grind of boring football and a struggling team but those self same people lived through seven sold years of dross (1988-95) without giving up the ghost so what is different? Ask them all and they say “Scally”. They don’t feel the club belongs to them anymore, they feel cynical and disconnected, abused and downright furious. I plan to stick it out but to illustrate the feeling amongst fans where I sit in the Rainham End, in 1999-00 eighteen of us bought season-tickets together, how many plan to renew next season even if we stay up? No more than five.
Whenever the Scally debate gets going the one retort from his defenders is the plaintive cry “what happens if he goes?” Well none of us have a crystal ball now do we, some owners are better than others but since the war only three clubs have gone bust, Accrington Stanley was a mad case of small minded panic and petty bureaucracy, the other two casualties had once thing in common, neither Maidstone nor Aldershot owned their own grounds. Every single other club, and nearly two-thirds of the League have been in serious financial trouble in the last twenty-five years, have survived – amazing huh! So my retort now and for ever more will be “What happens if Scally stays?” – more debt, more struggle, most discontent? Now the bad results and the poor quality players are obviously a major concern but they are simply a symptom of a great malaise, the root cause of all our woe is the financial situation and the buck quite correctly stops with Scally. It’s been emotional Paul but now perhaps it is time to go… and soon.